Originally published in the Spectator Australia
Most Australians know very little about Morocco because it’s one of those places that rarely makes the news. Not much goes wrong there. In fact, much is going right. It’s peaceful, politically stable, and surprisingly prosperous. And for a Muslim country, it’s been remarkably protective of its Jewish community, numbering about 250,000 during the Second World War, but now much reduced due to emigration to Israel.
As a French protectorate at the time, the collaborationist Vichy government ordered Morocco to handover its Jews for deportation to Germany. The then Sultan, subsequently King Mohammed V, famously responded that “Morocco has no Jews, only Moroccan citizens”. While the Sultan wasn’t able entirely to stop the Vichy regime imposing vocational and educational disabilities on Moroccan Jews, in a fragrant contrast to so many other countries that came under Nazi influence, not one of them ended up in Hitler’s death camps.
Moroccans take their religion seriously with the call to prayer regularly echoing over its cities and towns but theirs is a comparatively genial Islam; with alcohol, for instance, routinely available in local restaurants; and with mosques, imams and the Ulema regulated by the King, who’s recognised as “commander of the faithful”. At least in the cities, I’d say that about half the women are unveiled and I didn’t see anyone wearing a burka.
By tradition, one of the chief advisers to the government has been Jewish. For more than 30 years, first to Hassan II, and since to his son Mohammed VI, the chief adviser has been a Moroccan Jew, Andre Azoulay. A former banker in Paris, Azoulay has been instrumental in pro-market reforms that have seen Morocco jump from 130 to 43rd place in the Ease of Doing Business index since 2009. With Azoulay by his side, the King in 2020 opened a House of Memory in a former synagogue in Essaouira, to honour the country’s Jewish heritage. Every year, it hosts a music festival dedicated to co-performed works from the Muslim and the Jewish traditions.
On the night I arrived in the capital Rabat, as a guest of the Moroccan government, there was large Jewish gathering in my hotel, to mark the anniversary of the start of the Six Day War. As part of President Donald Trump’s Abraham Accords, Morocco normalised its relations with Israel. An Israeli embassy will soon open. As well, Israeli troops are participating in this year’s African Lion US-Morocco military exercise, involving about 10,000 personnel from 18 countries.
The “give” for Morocco’s recognition of Israel, was American recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara, the former Spanish colony, handed to Morocco in 1975. For almost two decades, the Polisario Front, backed by Libya and Algeria, waged an insurgency, in which perhaps 20,000 people were killed, and up to 80,000 Sahrawis fled to Algerian refugee camps. A 1991 truce was predicated on an independence plebiscite, which so far hasn’t been held.
To the UN (plus the African Union, but not to the Arab League) what the Moroccans now call simply “Sahara” is a “non-self governing territory” that’s not legally a province of Morocco. Unsurprisingly, the Moroccan government’s global mission is to have this rectified. Australia is not one of the 42 countries that officially recognise the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (that controls about 20 per cent, largely unpopulated desert, of the former Spanish colony); but nor are we one of the 49 countries that have acknowledged Moroccan sovereignty. Our official position is to support “self-determination” under UN guidance, even though the last thing that part of the world needs is another unstable micro-state, prone to being used as a pawn by larger neighbours. Some of the original Polisario leaders have given up the struggle and are now part of the Moroccan administration because they’ve worked out that this is the best practical option for local people.
As last year’s opening of an embassy shows, Australia wants to strengthen our links with Morocco. At about $US4000 per capita, Morocco’s GDP is on a par with that of Jordan, Egypt and Algeria, but much higher than that of most sub-Saharan Africa. And for a still statistically-relatively-poor country, its main cities are already linked by impressive motorways and soon by a very fast train. Like Australia, Morocco has abundant sun and space, and proximity lends some plausibility to its hopes of supplying “green hydrogen” to Europe. Fortescue Future Industries is one of the Australian businesses currently in Morocco, hoping to build on the the country’s interest in arid land agriculture and to boost the current half a billion dollar annual trade, mostly fertiliser. If we ever wanted, say, a free trade deal with Morocco, I reckon that officially recognising its hold over what was once Western Sahara would get it done in record time.
Anything we could do with Morocco would at least incrementally boost the stability of the region. It’s worth noting that by far the most successful Arab countries are the monarchies. As well as Morocco, there’s Jordan, the UAE, the other Gulf states, and Saudi Arabia too although it’s still hardly a liberal one. Especially in traditional, clan-based societies, monarchy seems to work better than republics with one man, one vote, once. A king typically wants his grandson one day to be in the same position he is, so usually pursues incremental change; rather than the radicalism beloved of rulers beholden to the mob or the army. Pre-Saddam, Iraq was a relatively tranquil country under a Hashemite king; even Afghanistan, under its pre-communist, pre-Taliban king, was peaceful enough to be part of the 1960’s hippie trail. If only the US had been capable of forgetting George III long enough to consider this option for the countries it was trying to help. Morocco is one of the very few Arab countries where the opposition has formed a government after an election. After 2011, an Islamist party was part of the government, before being defeated in the most recent elections. Yet on the Freedom House index, Morocco is said to be only “partly free” (a ranking, implausibly, also given to India and Hungary) despite being a constitutional monarchy with regular elections to parliament. Anti-monarchy prejudice, it seems, is a universal characteristic of the liberal-left.